After a successful push to ban the sale of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads in Erie County earlier this year, county Legislator Patrick Burke is continuing the effort to bring attention to pollution in the Great Lakes watershed.

At a Monday public hearing that brought together water systems experts from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, Burke pointed out that while there has been substantial development of the waterfront in recent years, pollution limits the ways that the public can enjoy the water itself.

“We’re investing significant public money in waterfront amenities, but not enough in the actual water,” Burke said.

Many at the hearing pointed to the economic benefits of investing in the cleanup of the environment, particularly waterways.

Fred Floss, the chair of the Economics and Finance department at Buffalo State College, pointed to a 2007 Brookings Institute study suggesting that the long-term benefits associated with investing in the cleanup of the Great Lakes would be immense, bringing an influx of jobs and people to the region.

“The real key here is are we, as a community, willing to pay the price now to have strong economic development later,” Floss said.

In Buffalo, sewage often finds its way into the waterways after rainfall, a result of the aging combined sewer and storm water systems. And while the city is currently under a U.S. EPA-mandated plan to fix the problem, the infrastructure upgrades will take as long as 15 years to complete, at a cost of an estimated $500 million. Nor is the issue contained to Buffalo. 

Joseph Fiegl, deputy commissioner of the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, said efforts are under way to implement infrastructure changes in towns across the county, but that funding can be hard to find.

In addition, Erie County contains dozens of disjointed wastewater systems and many different municipalities shoulder the burden of cleaning water in their own towns. Other counties in the state, such as Monroe, take a more regional approach to treating wastewater, with only a few large plants servicing the whole area.

“Water doesn’t follow municipal boundaries and I think, therefore, a regional solution is more favorable,” Feigl said.

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, said area leaders should also be looking to living infrastructure, such as rain gardens, green roofs and buffer zones for farmland and roads to help reduce run off, as a more affordable way to stop overflows.

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, which has also helped to secure millions of dollars in funds for projects like the Buffalo River clean up, released a report in 2011 suggesting that through the implementation of living infrastructure the city could reduce combined sewer system runoff by as much as 45 percent.

In the end, Jedlicka said, it is not one solution that will work to keep the Great Lakes and other area waterways clean, but a multi-faceted and well-planned regional approach. But no such plan exists.

“We have action plans. We have priorities,” Jedlicka said. “We do not have a comprehensive strategy as a state or as a county how our water or how our Great Lakes resources can be protected and economic drivers at the same time.”

After the hearing, Burke said he plans to host similar discussions in the future.

“I think this is the beginning of something,” Burke said.